As the international United Methodist mission organization, the General Board of Global Ministries carries within it the mission legacies of eight earlier denominations. The Methodist movement stretches back to the Rev. John Wesley (1703-1791), an English pastor, theologian and evangelist. Methodism first started as a revival movement within the Anglican Church of England, a church that Wesley never left.

John Wesley, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke. Photo: General Commission on Archives and History

The Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) was the earliest of these predecessor denominations, founded in the United States in 1784 while Wesley was still living. At the founding conference, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury were installed as superintendents. Both were missionaries from England, sent by John Wesley.

Sketch of John Stewart by Rev. B. C. Love in 1889; John Stewart Memorial; Wyandotte Mission Church in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. PHOTOS: CHRISTIE R. HOUSE; Nathan Bangs. Photo: General Commission on Archives and History

The first Methodist missionary society of the MEC, in the line that developed into the current Global Ministries, was founded in 1819. It was organized by a self-appointed group of preachers led by Nathan Bangs, a pastor of the New York Conference.

The Missionary Society was encouraged by the work of John Stewart among the Wyandotte people of Upper Sandusky, Ohio, started in 1816. Stewart, of mixed race, including African ancestry, listened for the voice of God and was compelled to preach among the Wyandotte. With no formal education, he was eventually licensed as a Methodist preacher and continued to live and work with the Wyandotte until his death in 1823.

The Mulberry Street building, an early Missionary Society building in partnership with the Methodist Book Room. Photo: General Commission on Archives and History

Though primarily concerned with domestic mission, the Missionary Society held the door open to send missionaries to other countries in the future. It made its home in New York City and was tied to the Methodist Book Concern, the Methodist publishing house of its time, to stabilize its administrative and financial structures. This association – mission and publishing – continued for more than a century.

Early missionaries Melville Cox and Ann Wilkins. Photo: General Commission on Archives and History

In 1833, the Missionary Society sent out its first overseas missionary, the Rev. Melville B. Cox, a preacher from Maine, to serve in Liberia. He arrived in March and had succumbed to a fever, likely malaria, by July, but in that short time, organized the Methodist Episcopal Church in Liberia. In 1837, the mission board sent its first woman missionary, Ann Wilkins, as a teacher to Liberia. She founded the first overseas school of the Missionary Society, Millsburg Female Academy, and served in Liberia for 19 years.

Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, 1882-1883, Boston. Photo: General Commission on Archives and History

In 1869, the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in Boston, Massachusetts. By the end of that year, the society sent Isabella Thoburn, a teacher, and Clara Swain, a doctor, to India as the society’s first missionaries. This work, and that of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society, formed in 1880, became part of Global Ministries’ history with mergers that brought the mission work of the women’s societies and the mission work of the board together as one organization.

After the 1968 merger, the women’s organization was part of Global Ministries and known as the Women’s Division of Global Ministries.

In 2012, the Women’s Division and Global Ministries separated with an amicable agreement, and United Methodist Women became an independent organization with its headquarters in New York City. In 2022, the national office changed its name to United Women in Faith, and many United Methodist Women organizations at the conference, district and local church levels did the same, but some are still known as United Methodist Women, all part of the same organization.

The Methodist Protestant Church (MPC) parted ways with the MEC in 1830, mainly over the issue of inclusion of laypeople in denominational decision-making. It was the first of the Methodist denominations to ordain women as pastors. The MPC set up its foreign mission board at its first General Conference, sending its first overseas missionary to Liberia in 1837. But its mission work mostly concentrated on U.S. programming until 1880, when mission work began in Japan in cooperation with other Protestant

The Lambuth family was one of the most famous missionary families in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and indeed, in all of Methodism. The family spanned from 4 generations in service, across the U.S., China, Japan and Africa. The older couple in the center is James and Mary, who originally set off to China from Mississippi. Behind Mary is Walter, and to the left is his wife, Daisy. The man in uniform next to Walter is his younger brother, Robert, whose wife is on the right.  The couple standing on the left is Walter’s sister, Nora and her husband, Dr. William Park. Photo: Courtesy of Kwansei Gakuin

In 1845, the churches of the southern states broke off from the MEC over the issue of slavery and formed the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. They recreated similar structures as the MEC, sending out missionaries and founding churches, schools, publishing operations and hospitals.

Methodist Board of Missions headquarters and the Methodist Book Concern, 1888 to 1952, Fifth Avenue and 20th Street, New York City. Photo: General Commission on Archives and History

The MEC, MECS and Methodist Protestant Church reunited in 1939 as The Methodist Church. Unification required the consolidation of five mission boards and the work of the three women’s agencies into one Board of Missions of the Methodist Church.

In 1940, the Methodist Committee on Overseas Relief (MCOR) was created by General Conference to begin relief operations for the many refugee and internally displaced populations made destitute by World War II. It was headquartered with the mission board in New York City.

Martin Boehm and William Otterbein, United Brethren in Christ. Photo: General Commission on Archives and History

The Church of the United Brethren was founded among primarily German-speaking immigrants who settled in the United States in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and Ohio. The founders of this church, Martin Boehm and William Otterbein, held their first revival service in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1767. The denomination came together officially in 1800 at its first General Conference. It launched its first missionary society in 1841, which started work in Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

Jacob Albright. Photo: General Commission on Archives and History

The Evangelical Association of North America was founded by Jacob Albright, a German-speaking native of Pennsylvania, in the 1790s. Albright was influenced by John Wesley and the Methodist movement. The Evangelical Association launched mission work in Nigeria, Europe and Asia. In 1894, a third of the membership of the Evangelical Association withdrew and formed the United Evangelical Church.

The Evangelical Church was formed in 1922 by the reunification and merger of the Evangelical Association of North America and the United Evangelical Church.

In 1946, the Evangelical Church merged with the Church of the United Brethren in Christ to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church (EUB). The EUB theology of mission included evangelism but also cooperation with other churches and government bodies to fulfill its mission objectives. In contrast to the Methodist Church, which developed overseas missions and then exerted authority over them, the EUB mission established faith communities and then surrendered denominational authority, enabling indigenous churches to form autonomous churches connected to the denomination.

475 Riverside Dr., New York, NY. Global Ministries headquarters 1959-2016. Photo: Christopher Tricomi

The United Methodist Church, formed in 1968 by merger of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church, created the General Board of Global Ministries as the denomination’s mission organization.

MCOR became the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) in 1968, coming under the umbrella of Global Ministries as an agency that concentrated on refugee relief; disaster relief, response and recovery; and development.

Global Ministries Atlanta office, 2022. Photo: Sara Logeman
Solar panels atop Global Ministries’ South Building in Atlanta. Photo: Jennifer Silver

In 2016, Global Ministries’ headquarters moved to Atlanta, Georgia.

Today, Global Ministries works in more than 115 countries and partners with local churches and organizations with similar goals and values to amplify the impact of its projects and programs around the world. It has a regional office in Seoul, South Korea, with staff presence also in Estonia, Liberia, Louisiana and New York.

Wyandotte land transfer from Thomas Kemper (left), former general secretary of Global Ministries (2010-2020), to Chief Billie Friend of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma. Photo: Anythony Trueheart

Global Ministries marked 200 years of Methodist mission in 2019. The bicentennial recognized the accomplishments and changes over the past 200 years while celebrating the present and future of Methodist mission, including how mission unifies all Methodists for God’s redemptive work in the world. As part of the bicentennial observance, Global Ministries held a world conference of mission leaders and scholars in Atlanta called “Answering the Call: Hearing God’s Voice in Methodist Mission Past, Present and Future.” It also marked the occasion with a new book, Methodist Mission at 200: Serving Faithfully Amid the Tensions.

The United Methodist mission agency has undergone many changes throughout its 200+-year history. These changes have included structural and administrative adjustments as well as changes to funding support, logistics in humanitarian work and missionary placements, and theological changes as evaluation practices became more deliberate and direct.

Although the concept of mission was originally conceived as the U.S. church taking Christ to other lands that had no Christianity, this concept also led to complicity with colonial powers seeking to exploit people of other nations for their raw resources and human labor. Global Ministries acknowledges this sin of colonialism, racism and arrogance as part of its history. But we also acknowledge that Methodists in other lands, inheritors of the Global Ministries mission outreach, became leaders who were pivotal in helping Global Ministries to understand these sins and how to work toward equality and mutuality so that all Methodists are working together for God’s mission.

Today, Global Ministries commissions an international missionary community. Over the las 50 years, missionaries and staff of the agency come from many different countries and serve all over the world. This has resulted in large measure from the increasing role of mission-founded churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America assuming active roles in the mission movement.  Global Ministries is not global because it sends missionaries around the world but because United Methodists around the world engage in mission together.

In keeping with its historical legacy and through contemporary ministries that meet international standards, Global Ministries focuses its efforts in four key priority ministries.

  • Humanitarian Relief and Recovery
  • Missionaries
  • Evangelism and Church Revitalization
  • Global Health
Roland Fernandes, General Secretary of Global Ministries

Roland Fernandes, present general secretary of Global Ministries, has said: “The General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church, is in a new mission age, challenged to faithfully respond to waves of tensions – some new, some longstanding. We seek to comprehend and apply our most Christ-filled and creative attention to these challenges. We dare to do this because God, through Christ, has blessed us with the fruits of the Spirit identified by Paul in Galatians. We dare to faithfully engage in God’s mission because God, in grace, makes our work possible. Our work is to exemplify and share the love of God and neighbor. This was the mission message of Jesus, the first disciples, St. Paul and John Wesley.”